Incarcerated and Invisible


Last June, there were 2.1 million Americans behind bars. Out of sight and mind? The answer is yes when it comes to official unemployment figures.

A similar invisibility for the incarcerated was also the case in an April 27 New York Times report on workers out of a job for increasing periods of time. Those locked up in U.S. jails and prisons were also locked out of this report. Talk about perception management.

Yet as our newspaper of record recently reported, over the past three decades the nation’s incarcerated population has quadrupled. Today, the souring job market would appear even worse if those held in the American gulag were acknowledged as potential workers earning a salary or wage. But such is not the case in government statistics or corporate media.

To be sure, the incarcerated do work. It’s not called the prison-industrial complex for nothing. Yet even when these human beings do toil outside of their cells, they’re not officially counted as being employed.

Meanwhile in America since the mid-1970s, the working day has grown longer and longer. The unionization rate of private-sector workers has tumbled sharply as employers and the government have teamed up to beat up on unions. These trends have been a boon for America’s Fat Cats.

Their wealth accumulation has expanded almost beyond belief. This, in turn, has rendered a growing section of the nation’s work force increasingly irrelevant to the U.S. economy. From Boston to Compton, these are the throwaway people, no longer needed to labor for the creation of wealth held by a few.

What are the social implications? Who is (not) asking this crucial question? And why?

Currently, the U.S. economy is floundering. Some wits have called this a “post-bubble” phase of the business cycle, following the hi-tech and stock market meltdowns. In response, President Bush and Congress are fiddling with the amount of new tax cuts for the super rich, presumably to re-start growth.

One hears, reads and sees much about the need for business spending to increase for job creation to improve. To be sure, this would help workers. Under a market economy, their labor-power is a commodity that is sold and bought, bought and sold, depending on the demand for it by business.

This process is governed by the profitability of the few who own society’s productive assets such as factories, land and so forth. Some in the GOP might call such an assertion evidence of “class warfare.” But every social story has at least two sides to it, and often more than that.

Under today’s market economy, how much would business spending have to grow to employ the 8.4 million Americans who were officially unemployed in March? And for those living in U.S. jails and prisons who aren’t counted in the official jobless rate to be gainfully employed? One need not have the answers to ask the questions.

SETH SANDRONSKY is co-editor of Because People Matter. He can be reached at:



Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email